Edited tweets is still a minefield, but Twitter’s solution just might work

I’ve long been super against edited tweets, mostly for technical reasons. The core issue is that Twitter isn’t like other social media sites; unlike, say Instagram and Facebook posts, embedded tweets drive the news in many ways. Republishing and retweeting of tweets is the main risk around allowing users to edit it. Let me break down a few of the reasons why, and why Twitter’s rollout might be challenging, but still work.

Since its launch, but especially in the era where Trump’s presidency essentially couldn’t have happened if it weren’t for Twitter, the platform has become the fastest way for anyone to get any info to an audience. That has upsides, but it also means that information that is distributed goes far and wide. In a world where fake news runs rampant, that’s… a challenge.

The ability to edit tweets has always been technically trivial — you update a database, job done. Databases are great at the ability to update information, especially if you don’t care about edit history or (god forbid) immutability.

Twitter is a platform of immediacy: As soon as you hit “Tweet,” all your followers see what you just wrote, within seconds. That sets Twitter apart from every other social media. It also means that from a policy point of view, editing is complex.

The concept of instantly being able to re-publish content is a powerful feature of Twitter, and while opinions vary on whether a retweet constitutes an endorsement of sentiment or merely an amplification, an idea can be retweeted within seconds of being shared. This makes the concept of editing a tweet complicated, because it is very difficult to know what the edit actually means.

If you start thinking a little bit about what the implications of edited tweets are, you open up a whole series of questions, all of which have two or more perfectly sensible solutions — but each solution brings its own challenges. If someone tweets something, and you like the tweet, what should happen to your “like” once the tweet is edited? What if the edit means you no longer agree? Or what if your “like” in fact triggers a Zapier script that does something with the tweet — what should happen to the tweet?

Imagine that I write something about how incredible my local coffee shop is, they retweet it, and I edit the tweet to “I shoulda gone to Starbucks instead of LocalCoffeeShop”?

It seems like Twitter is trying to limit access to the ability for now, only to Twitter Blue subscribers.

The platform also rolled out tweet editing to its API users, so they can access past tweets and use the API to make edits to tweets for accounts that have that functionality enabled.

It’s going to be beyond interesting to see how these features will be used by users — and abusers — on the Twitter platform. There are so many quirky edge cases to this; here are a few that make me break out in cold sweat as a product person:

  • What if you report a tweet that was abusive, but was edited afterward, so is no longer visible to regular users?
  • What if you show tweets on a website, but you cache the content? How do you ensure you show the most recent version of the tweet?
  • If you did embed a tweet, you take some degree of editorial responsibility for it as a publisher. How do you trigger a re-moderation of potentially very old tweets?
  • What if you have a tweet open, and it gets edited between you reading it and you hitting retweet?
  • What if you used a scheduling tool (such as Buffer) to retweet something with a comment later, but the original tweet was edited? If your comment no longer makes sense, how should that be handled?
  • Should an edited tweet be re-inserted into the timeline for users who see it by “newest first”?
  • What if I could go back in time and, in January 2015, suggest that Donald Trump runs for president as a joke? Okay, so I did actually do that, but now that editing exists, it would be much easier to fake that. Still wouldn’t be funny, though.
  • Should there be a difference between a major and a minor edit? Like, a typo versus completely changing the content of the tweet? And, in a world where a comma can make a world of difference, how would the platform know what constitutes a major or a minor edit?

I am still curious if enabling editing is going to cause more problems than it is worth, but the limited roll-out to New Zealand, Canada and  Australia is going to get really interesting. The potential for abuse is great, but perhaps we can finally get rid of those dumb little typos in tweets that unexpectedly blow up.